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Students' Clout Helping Workers -- and Unions

Colleges Are Bright Spot For Labor Organizing

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page B01

Every hour that Ollie Fulmore works -- dragging the trash out, mopping, sweeping, fixing stopped-up toilets, vacuuming or giving students a hand at Howard University -- he earns another $8.65.

It's not enough, he said, for a dad with four kids ages 7 to 15 and an apartment in Northeast Washington. So when he finishes work at Bethune Annex, he heads to his next full-time job, serving chicken at a fast-food restaurant on campus.

His union, the Service Employees International Union Local 82, has been negotiating for months with university leaders. But Fulmore is hoping for some extra clout: "They listen to the students," he said. "The students backing us is very important."

Hunger-striking students at Georgetown University last month drew attention to a growing movement on campuses: workers' rights. Today at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, students will wave signs in front of the administration building demanding higher wages for contract and classified employees.

Students have leverage, experts said, not only because universities are vulnerable to moral arguments in ways that businesses often are not, but because they can't be fired.

Universities are one of the few bright spots for labor unions, which have been losing members and power for years now. More than a third of the U.S. workforce belonged to a union in the 1950s, and only about 13 percent do today. "If we're going to grow as a labor union, we need to organize a million new members a year," said John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "That's very difficult with the situation in our economy."

So they can use the help.

"It's become so difficult to organize in most private businesses that the unions have turned to the campuses," said Jamin B. Raskin, chairman of the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board in Maryland. "I think unions understand they have a bit more leverage in organizing on campuses." He said it's easier for a corporation to use a union-busting tactic than for a university.

Maryland public universities have seen a whirlwind of labor organizing in the past few years. Since the General Assembly voted to change state law in 2001 and Raskin was appointed to help establish the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board, nearly 7,000 campus employees have joined unions.

Police officers at Towson University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County recently voted for collective bargaining in elections held by the board. For a while, "it was just constant election frenzy all the time," Raskin said. "There was a very fast push after the statute came in, and now the vast majority of people who can be organized have been organized."

That doesn't mean similar labor sweeps everywhere. At the University of Virginia, Jan Cornell, president of the fledgling staff union there, has had trouble getting people to join.

Aaron Samsel, a junior at Mary Washington who is leading the wage protests on that campus, said students brought in labor leaders to talk with workers -- and the workers weren't interested.

But students at many campuses are more aware of the issues now, whether for janitors or adjunct faculty. Tom Juravich, professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said workers' rights are on students' minds in the way that divestment from South Africa was in the 1980s. "I think we'll see an awful lot more conflicts," Juravich said.

This week at Washington University in St. Louis, students began a sit-in to demand better wages for workers. Sweeney threw AFL-CIO support behind them. In the past week, thousands of students have protested on campuses across the country, according to the Student Labor Action Project.

Negotiations with Howard University over wages, benefits and staffing issues had stopped last month, said local union representative Sheri Davis, until they had a rally on the Yard and delivered petitions that she said included student signatures. "If it's just us, they're a lot more likely to stall," Davis said.

J.J. Pryor, a Howard spokeswoman, said negotiations never stopped for a significant amount of time and the sides agree on everything but across-the-board salary increases. She also said that Howard employees have one of the best benefits packages among local universities, including free tuition. Pryor said that student involvement would not influence negotiations

Caneisha Mills, a junior at Howard, said she saw fliers one day that said workers' raises were not keeping up with the cost of living. "It's really ridiculous for anyone to be making under $10 an hour," Mills said. "People can't survive."

She went to Georgetown to support protesters there last month, too. "That living-wage campaign showed that when students and workers unite, you can win the struggle," she said.

Fulmore, who is 44, was excited when he got a job at Howard five years ago. He thought he might be able to take classes there. Though he hasn't had time yet, working 80 hours a week, he hopes his children will study there someday. "I love the campus, I love Howard," he said.

He's also hopeful that students might help change the one thing he doesn't love about the school: the wages.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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